Norris outlines troopers' mission

Stepped-up presence in homeland security, city among leader's goals

February 03, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

More extensive crime-fighting and reassigning additional officers to highway patrol duties are immediate priorities for Maryland's new state police superintendent, Edward T. Norris -- goals that may sound familiar to those acquainted with the former Baltimore City police commissioner.

Colonel Norris has been talking about an ambitious plan that would put the state police at the forefront of homeland security and in the daily grind of preventing homicides, gun-running and drug trafficking, especially in Baltimore and Prince George's County.

He also said highway patrol is one of the most dangerous and important duties of the 1,700-member state police force. And Norris said he doesn't want the state's pending racial-profiling lawsuit -- he supports portions of the proposed settlement -- to interfere with the way troopers do their jobs.

In an interview last week, Norris provided an outline of his positions on racial profiling, restructuring and the new mission of the state police. He said he will present more specific plans after his confirmation hearing today.

"These officers want to get back in the game, but they've been too afraid of lawsuits," said Norris, who was appointed as the state's top police officer by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "If they're doing their job, I'm going to stand behind them. ... Interstate 95 is a drug pipeline. The guns get here somehow. And let's not forget that a state trooper stopped one of the hijackers before the Sept. 11 attacks. Criminals and terrorists have to get from point A to point B just like everyone else."

Even before the hearing today before the Senate Executive Nominations Committee in the State House was scheduled, Norris said he knew of at least one senator from Baltimore who promised to vote against him for leaving the city.

Although some city officials have criticized the way Norris left -- with a $137,000 severance payment and a $6,850 annual pension -- state officials generally seem optimistic about Norris, a former New York City police commander, who had a successful record of reducing violent crime in Baltimore. Norris said the state will pay him about what he would have earned in the city this year -- $143,000.

"My sense from troopers so far is that they're glad he's listening to their concerns. I think they're hopeful," said Lt. Nick Paros, president of the Maryland Troopers Association.

Some colleagues have predicted Norris will get frustrated by the bureaucracy of state government, but the colonel says his introduction to the State House by way of budget hearings last week was fine.

Even with budget analysts proposing the state close barracks in Annapolis and College Park to help alleviate the state's budget deficit, Norris said he is optimistic they will remain open.

And he said he didn't mind the grilling by legislators. Unlike budget proceedings in City Hall, he says, "We actually talked about the budget the whole time. No one asked me if I go to church or if I am a racist." For the record, Norris, 42, has said he does attend church and that he isn't a racist.

But racial profiling remains an issue for the state police, named in a class action lawsuit on behalf of dozens of minority motorists who said they were stopped by troopers for "driving while black."

Norris said he has a few reservations about the deal that would settle the lawsuit with a series of departmental changes. However, he said he has requested more time to review it.

Norris says he doesn't like the tone of the agreement, which he said implies that the state police have done something wrong. And he said he doesn't support establishing a police-citizen panel to monitor reports of racial profiling.

He has a close relationship with Baltimore's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Norris said, and would seek its input. But he said he doesn't like the idea of five citizens sitting on the committee, which would also include five NAACP members and five police officers, under the proposal.

Norris said he supports the proposal to install more cameras in patrol cars and to give motorists a record of why, when and where they were stopped and by which trooper. "We did that in the city, too," he said.

However, state African-American leaders said they hope Norris will support the settlement agreement. "I'm optimistic about Norris," said Edythe Flemings Hall, president of the Maryland state conference of NAACP branches. "He comes from the city. He knows what the climate is. He's not there just to protect the troopers. He has an obligation to the citizens in the state of Maryland."

Norris' mandate from Ehrlich to become more involved in homeland security and in high-crime areas in the state are less controversial.

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